Oscars 2012: Lack of Diversity Means Best Picture Decided by a Bunch of Old White Men


The Oscars are Sunday, and tens of millions of people will watch to see which artists the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has chosen to receive some of the most prestigious awards in film. For many decades, the Academy has come under attacks for failing to represent the diversity of the wider United States. However, a new study by the Los Angeles Times has highlighted just how unrepresentative the Academy really is. With a makeup of voters that is 77% male and 94% Caucasian, the winners chosen on Sunday night may very well represent a biased view of what excellence in the film industry really means.

Several members of the academy have provided reasons for the unrepresentative group of voters. The Los Angeles Times reported, “Some members see it simply as a mirror of hiring patterns in Hollywood, while others say it reflects the group's mission to recognize achievement rather than promote diversity.” Members of the Academy say that their hands are tied, and that until the industry becomes more diverse, the group voting to represent the industry will remain predominantly old, white, and male.

The lack of diversity permeates all the way to the top of management. According to the report, “Of the academy’s 43-member board of governors, six are women; public relations executive Cheryl Boone Isaacs is the sole person of color.” And the racial and gender make-up of the Academy has an effect on who gets nominated. Last year, not a single minority was represented among the 45 people nominated for actor, actress, supporting actor and actress, director, or original and adapted screenplay. Was this really a result of a lack of minorities in film?

Members that claim that the Academy simply reflects the diversity of the industry do not recognize that causality could be running the other way — perhaps the industry lacks a representative number of minorities and women because of the perception of the Academy’s tastes. Receiving an Oscar nomination is one of the highest honors in the industry, and members of the film industry have a strong incentive to pander to the tastes of the individuals doling out the awards. If a director sees a higher probability of his film winning an Academy Award with a white, male lead, he might choose that safe route and ignore a minority pick. 

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should do a better job of recognizing excellence, regardless of race or gender, in order to improve the film industry’s image – which is what the organization was originally set up to do.

The Los Angeles Times quoted Academy member Bill Duke, a black actor and director, as saying, “The black community sees the academy as an entity that ignores the needs, wants, desires and representation of black directors, producers, actors and writers. Whether it is true or not, that is how it’s perceived – as an elitist group with no concern or regard for the minority community and industry. And there doesn’t seem to be any desire to change that perception.”

While merit is the primary criterion for membership, admittance to the Academy can be granted on an application and recommendation from two members. In addition to changing its membership to better represent minority groups and women, the Academy should do a better job at encouraging applications from these groups.

The Oscars are not the People’s Choice Awards, and they don’t claim to be. But that does not give the Academy a free pass to ignore success and encourage nonparticipation by minorities and women in the film industry.

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